Monday, 23 January 2012

Virtual Maternity Unit wins 2012 RCM Innovation Award

The Virtual Maternity Unit which I built (and Fay Cross scripted) for Jenny Bailey, Academic Division Midwifery, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Physiotherapy at the University of Nottingham, has received the Philips Avent Award for Innovation in Midwifery from the Royal College of Midwifery.
A press release went out on Friday the 20th.
Look for 'Click here for the full story,' where Jenny describes the sim in greater detail, or view the full press release on the MIDIRS site.

Meanwhile, I have edited my PowerPoint presentation for the demonstration on the VMU I gave at the IRVW2011 conference, and you can now see it on

The poster I created to describe the VMU for AltC 2010 likewise won the Best Poster Competition, as voted by conference delegates.
Another poster along the same lines went with Jenny Bailey and Bob Hallawell to the Net11
conference.A lot of work went into the creation of the Virtual Maternity Unit, so I will be following up with a review of the build while it was under development. The PP presentation on SlideShare covers some of this. I can personally attest to the immersive nature of the simulation, as I had to test the birth mother's avatar skin as I was making it, as well as test and tweak the animations and poses while in progress. There is nothing like having folks [virtually] walk in on you when you are [virtually] draped (clothed) over a birthing ball and ask "What are you Doing?" to give a sense of truly 'being there.' Oh, if avatars could blush.

Friday, 17 December 2010

COMSLIVE_Communication Skills Learning within Immersive Virtual Environments_9th Virtual Worlds in Education Forum

The Wonder of Good Communication

Nigel Wynne, co-host of the Forum and Senior Academic in Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Health at BCU, gave a synopsis of his research funded by JISC LTIG, ‘Communication Skills Learning within Immersive Virtual Environments’, which was concerned with deficits in nursing students’ communication, team working and delegation skills. According to the COMSLIVE website, poor communication is indicated in numerous unanticipated patient deaths and illnesses within the UK and US health care sectors. Basing the research around the null hypothesis that students would not benefit from learning scenarios in a virtual world, Nigel Wynne and Emma Winterman conducted exercises in the java-based, free and open source, Open Wonderland sim, in which student volunteers could explore teamwork productivity exercises designed to support adoption of collaborative skills.

Based within a randomized control trial research design, intervention group teams engaged in Wonderland patient scenarios. Interaction with virtual world patients was followed by physical world higher fidelity computerized mannequin-based simulation activities. During these activities the performance of students who had experienced virtual world learning were compared with control group students who had not. Real world behavior of these teams was observed and rated.

Given the assumption from the outset that the benefit of the scenarios would not be realized, they were surprised when intervention group students significantly outperformed control group students. Intervention group students found their virtual world learning experience both positive and indicated it was having a lasting impact on their behavior during clinical placements. Intervention group students showed improvements in such skills as practicing ‘paraphrasing’ and in showing assertiveness to change others’ behavior for a positive outcome.

Using the telephony integration afforded by Open Wonderland, part of the virtual world scenarios involved using a ‘softphone’ within the sim to make a call to a tutor in the real world. During this telephone simulation students were able to practice having their requests understood and prioritized, using the Situation-Background-Assessment-Recommendation protocol.

Open Wonderland, was found to be ideal for the learning and teaching scenarios from the development side, in that it could be run from behind a firewall, allowed LDAP authentication and enabled an ‘open art pathway’. Models from SketchUp, Maya and 3DS Max could be imported with relative ease, and the drag-and-drop insertion in-world of models from Google Warehouse was most useful. 3D assets created for a parallel teaching project, Virtual Case Creator, were imported, saving significant development time. Firefox worked as a browser in-world, enabling creation of monitor screens delivering real-time information via web browser windows. In practice they found the sim loaded quickly, slowed only by client specifications.

From 2011, use of the COMSLIVE sim will be mandatory for year one health care students. The Open Wonderland platform is scalable, allowing continued expansion of the virtual scenarios. Potential exists to support the Interprofessional Learning agenda and Objective Structured Clinical Examination testing.

Nigel introduced the talented team behind the development of COMSLIVE and VCC, Janine Dantzie and Tim Marquis. Tim chose to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the UNITY game development tool. Delivering games via web browser and allowing for an amazing level of detail, the creative pipeline he described was smooth and facile, and the support community the most helpful in his experience. In 2010, Unity won the Wall Street Journal’s Technology Innovation award in the software category. Obviously, this is one to keep in sight. Features for the tool are reviewed here.

World War 1 poets in SL_9th Virtual Worlds in Education Forum

Lest We Forget: The Sound of the Western Front

After lunch, Chris Stephens, Senior Developer with Oxford University Computing Services, shared his Second Life recreation of life and conditions on the Western Front in the 1914-18 time period. The environment uses several levels to model the life in the camps and on the front, and features digitised archival materials from major poets of the time period, as well as shades of soldiers recounting various aspects of life on the front. The WindLight settings were grimly atmospheric, with bomb-blasted trees in silhouette on the horizon. Rats scurried about most realistically and sounds faded in and out as he walked along the trenches in uniform.

As a means of setting a scene to understand literature, this environment succeeded almost too well, as itevoked a depth of emotion unfathomed by reading alone. The senses of sight, sound and touch were engaged, and a desire to learn more instilled. Amazingly, Chris Stephens, with the help of Alun Edwards, had only 6 weeks to complete the re-creation.

If he had not already been an adept builder and scriptor, such a promethean task would not have been possible. Visit the sim in SL, or browse the Flicker photostream. Link to machinima of the sim: Torn Fields – war poets1914-1918

Missionmaker, Virtual Identity, OpenSim_9th Virtual Worlds in Education Forum

The first presentation was by Andrew Hutchinson, Project Leader, Midland Leadership Centre, who gave an enthusiastic demo of an interesting and inexpensive tool for drag-and-drop creation of virtual learning/gaming spaces. Missionmaker is touted as a game authoring tool for creative learning. A child could use it, yet the interactivity creation seemed quite feasible and the results looked professional. Some examples were shown with Western environments, and Space centers, complete with avatars, props and a robot with a voice recording. Apparently, it is fun to use, and a standalone version costs under £100 with VAT included. Site licences are also available. Missionmaker is made by Immersive Education, who also created Kar2ouche.

Hey, Spike! What’ya Like?*

After the coffee break, Mark Childs made a presentation from the floor, highlighting his recently completed PhD, Learners’ Experiences in Virtual Worlds. The gist of his talk centered around the notion of ‘embodied cognition’. Mark had found that for cognition in Virtual Worlds to be effective, one first needed to establish a virtual body schema.

Learning outcomes were tied to how well students inhabited and related to their avatar selves. In the absence of sufficient time in which to customise an avatar, students felt less immersed in their surroundings. A newcomer, for example, would not understand the notion of the ‘feel’ of a virtual space. Thus, immersive feelings such as ‘claustrophobic’, ‘airy’ or ‘cosy’ would not be understood as descriptions of a virtual space in the absence of self projection. To illustrate the difference between pre- and post-embodiment, Mark, aka, Gann McGann, has allowed his virtual self to be photographed ‘before’ and ‘after’. A certain jaded look seems to have accompanied the transformation, and he now looks like he knows how to use those spikes. *Tom Petty, 1985

Is there VoIP on Mars?

In another presentation from the floor, Drew Crow from Worcestershire Local Authority shared some insights into development and use of Open Sim for creating a virtual space in which school students themselves could recreate a Cholera Hospital. Another project shown was their Mars open terrain sim, housed in a crater at a reduced scale, wherein students explored issues relating to creation and habitation of space stations.

Projects and workflow are covered in greater detail, with videos, in Drew’s own blog. The difficulties in arranging for Linden Labs to accept under 18 yr-olds in Second Life precluded use of that environment, so OS seemed the best choice, with FreeSWITCH used to enable Open Source Voice Conferencing. Apparently, some fore-knowledge of Linux was useful, but not mandatory. Drew mentioned that OS allowed creation of 2×2 regions, and demonstrated it could even be run as a standalone on a laptop, installed with time-saving Diva Distro . Drew has also created a blog covering solutions to getting the most out of the commercial University learning platform, which many of the schools in his area are using.

More presentations to follow: WW1 in SL, COMSLIVE and VERT.

Notes from the 9th Virtual Worlds in Education Forum

This series of articles was first published on the IS Learning Technology blog in December 2010.

The one-day conference was held in the amazing new Secole Building at Birmingham City University on the 8th of December, 2010.

This being my first such virtual worlds meeting, I was surprised to recognise names amongst the participants and encounter builders of well-know marvels, in person, no less. The event was organised by Jane Edwards of RSC West Midlands, and hosted by Nigel Wynne, a Senior Academic in Learning and Teaching at the BCU and Head of the Online Simulation and Immersive Education (OSIME) Research Group, ‘which develops and evaluates 2D and 3D technologies in support of health care education. (I had a look at the Seacole website prior to heading over and was very impressed.)

Ongoing Costs and Restrictions

In general discussion, delegates agreed that many of the HE institutions with a Second Life presence are concerned about Linden Lab’s upcoming withdrawal of the 50% educational discount. The frustrations of delivering learning content in a commercial virtual world are propelling many to consider an exit strategy and the potential to grid-link with others’ educational sims in a non-commercial environment.

As of Dec. 15th, 2010, Linden Labs has closed the Teen SL and is allowing under-18 residents onto the main SL grid. The new terms of service appear when logging in the first time thereafter. The Viewer 2 maturity ratings guidelines are less reminiscent of those used to describe movies, and are now letters ‘G’ for General, ‘M’ for Moderate and ‘A’ for Adult. Children younger than 13 years-old are not allowed, and the other ages have guidelines for which rated areas they may enter. Many are disappointed at the loss of this more sheltered environment.

Shared Resources and Strategies

Along the collaborative route, Nigel Wynne proposed pooling resources from HE institutions such that easily transferrable items such as scripting solutions and 3D assets could be made available to the educational community. I could certainly contribute some textures.

Later, when searching for articles and events around HE strategies concerned with sustainable involvement in Virtual Worlds (as a cross-UK initiative), I came across the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable. The VWERGrid’s Educators Land Initiative has 40 parcels available ‘for free to those with direct ties to education’. Parcels are being assigned a rapid rate and a community is expected to grow and flourish in this new OpenSim-based grid.

The University of Rockcliffe is also holding a virtual conference, Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education 2011, in Second Life, March 17-19.

Back up for a minute

Although on last perusal, Second Inventory appeared to be the ideal solution for backing up builds and scripts created and owned by a single avatar, many conference attendees at the Virtual Worlds in Education Forum recommended the Imprudence viewer, which I assume can back up inventory, much like the now banned Emerald Viewer. A bonus when launching the Imprudence viewer is the assumption that Second Life is not the first choice of one’s default grid. The logo for Imprudence is the American Sign Language gesture, often seen held aloft at rock concerts to show appreciation, signifying, ‘I love you’, which seems rather fitting for a third-party viewer. On another note, the development team behind the Emerald viewer has recently launched a brand new viewer for accessing the Virtual World Web. From them I would expect more of a sign language gesture for tenacity.

Group discussions also centered on potential use of Xbox 360’s Kinect sensors and code to enable natural avatar movement. On further investigation online, some interesting and unforeseen things are being done with it already. Some uses might even raise your eyebrows, if not your heart rate.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Making of the UoN Library Garden

In February, on the University of Nottingham's 
Web Campus island
 in Second Life, the IS Learning Team launched the first version of the Library Garden, which acts both as a spot of beauty and as an introduction to ways of using Library resources to conduct research. 

The original plan was for Library representatives to take students on orientation tours through the virtual garden, then invite them to review the information later on their own, however, we are also hoping people will stumble upon it and enjoy the garden for itself, as well as hold meetings there. The garden doesn't replace, but is meant to enhance the comprehensive 'Pathways to Information' web resource:

When we were in the early discussion phase with Clare Paulino, who was authoring the content, I showed her some of the ideas I had about containing information inside flowers, which would release their content as people walked past.
Each flower would be animated in a different way, however the structure of the flower allowed easy movement and scripting. I thought that the movement would attract attention and curiosity from a distance, without being visually invasive. I spoke with Yaf Muggins, our programmer, and she created and applied a script to cause the petals of a sample water lily to open, then she applied text to luminous pollen grains, which floated up in lists, collapsing back in as the person walked past. The timing was tricky, but when she tested it in the sandbox, the result was surprisingly beautiful. When we showed the idea in the proposed location next to the SL Trent Building, with pathways bending around the contours of the coast, and bridges to the island, we got the green light to continue
All in all, I made so many flowers, and many are still to be seen as works in progress in the sandbox area, but as of yet, only two kinds are animated in the garden, though we hope to replace or improve them some later this year. I really like the land-based flowers, which have little curved golden trumpets, which slowly rotate on approach, catching the eye.

On our RL University of Nottingham campus, there is a circular themed 'Millennium Garden', which inspired my use of the radial theme in the SL version, which apart from circular shapes and a visual reference to one of the granite sculptures in the real one, has no other design elements common. The value of delivering a learning resource through a botanical analogy is simply that it allows us ‘room to grow’.

The curving bridge was inspired by a shape made from a tube prim, which my builder colleague Noono Karu gave to me. I pieced it together in various ways until I had the most curvilinear and organic stone bridge, patterned with a texture from the RL Trent Building flagstones. With a few changes to allow our tour boat to pass under the arch and over a submerged dip, the stone bridges and paths began to define the area.

There are several pathways to follow:

The Collaborative Causeway, which follows the bridge across the water, has two stations on it: the Fountain of Finding Research Partners, and the Water Wiki (with the animated lilies).

The Knowledge Boardwalk has seven rotating trumpet-centred flowers, which detail the usefulness of various types of publications: books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, journals, reports, conference proceedings, and standards.

Alongside the boardwalk is a diversion to the Radial Reference Garden, which stands over the water on radial stilts and has soil in pie-shaped plots. When clicked on, the sections have little seedlings which emerge, yielding examples for how to reference a chapter in a book, a patent, a thesis, an online resource, a conference paper, journal article or a book. A further right-click on the sign engraved on the pavement yields a notecard with information which for students may take away for later use.

At the other end of the boardwalk is a wide spiral stairway up to the DIY Statue of Search Tools, where the stacking and removal of carved stones is meant to emulate the sifting of information gathered from search tools. This interactive idea was inspired in part by BBC's 'In the Night Garden' game, where Makka Pakka has stacking stones in his cave.

The stones in the childrens' BBC game make beautiful tones when dropped, but ours simply reveal information when stacked, suggesting use of the following as useful resources to use in searches: reading lists, e-Journals, databases, COPAC, interlibrary loans, library catalogue(s), search engines, the web subject gateway and bibliographic databases. 
We considered a number of analogies for the collection and sifting of information gathered, but Yaf decided that the stacking analogy was one she could make work, and patterned the stones after the texture on an ovoid granite sculpture in the Millenium Garden. I like the soft, round ones best.

From the search tools deck, you can either walk up the hill to the Dissemination Deck, where publishing your research is symbolised by releasing balloons, or follow the stone path down to the Water Wiki, where the closed water lilies open to reveal suggestions for how to work in collaboration with research partners, means of giving credit and of sharing information through tools like blogs, facebook and wikis. I'd like to have made it so that more was to be seen under the lily pads, and indeed, I did texture them appropriately, but I ended up making it possible to walk across the duckweed, in order to prevent unfortunate souls from getting stuck under the flowers and lily pads. Perhaps I will create another resource under the water when we get the chance to develop the garden further.

Following the Collaborative Causeway back to the entry point, the
Fountain of Finding Partners is on the right. The water is not yet animated, and we joked that it was the cold snap we went through over the winter break which left it so. In any case, this platform of radial spokes has three pedestals with various symbolic objects, which describe ways of finding research partners, giving examples of resources commonly used. I had fun doing the little scholars, with their billowing capes. 

Yaf Muggins did a lovely job of animating the little glowing cubes meant to represent bibliographic databases. They look good enough to eat (if your graphics card supports 'glow', that is.) Last of all, hidden under the spiral staircase is a meeting area we dubbed the 'Consultation Cove'. Clare and I had a lot of fun coming up with the various names, but hopefully we will get plenty of feedback on the actually functionality of the garden, as a 'feedback survey' and a 'comments' box are placed at the entrance.
Even though the most important consideration in creating the Library Garden was that it was meant to be used as a resource to inform students embarking on research, I personally also wanted it to be a place where anyone would seek out, both for the sake of curiosity and the desire to be in a lush and peaceful setting; a retreat where the sun shone on rainy days and the sunsets were always beautiful. I have yet to animate the fountains and add ambient nature noises, but one thing at a time. (-:

The garden is not really finished, and I am open to comment. Some of the continued improvements or changes will be to:
  • animate the fountain.
  • create more appropriate seedlings in the reference garden
  • insert more flower varieties, animated to reveal info, based on the work-in-progress flowers displayed in our sandbox
  • improve timing on the flowers' anims.
There are plenty of other things to tweak, but I had a limit of 6 weeks to create the garden, more or less, from concept to completion, so I had to stop at some point, shift focus and hope to find time to tidy up and tweak.

I am so very pleased that we are garnering interest, and I hope that any visitors who haven't much time to linger, will return and give us feedback or suggestions on how to improve the efficacy of the garden or other parts of our island. It is so different now to be getting feedback directly from people who come in contact with my work, even watching and chatting with me as the shapes take form, in comparison to the more anonymous workflow on animations and graphics for the 'flat web'. Go have a look at the garden and release the balloons on top of the hill. I'd love to make it so we could pop them in flight, but first things first...maybe I'll see if we can offer a little bunch of some of the flowers to those who complete the survey or drop a note in the comments box for the first 100 or so people (-:

Thursday, 26 February 2009

In the background, you see part of the Trent building. This was my first build, with my colleague, Noono Karu as architect of the dock area and floating tower. Many speculate about the position of the tower. The truth is, that as we developed the two parts of the building separately and showed it to a committee before it was finished, we found more liked it in this floating, surreal location than those who did not. Feedback is great that way. I just added the glowing light panels underneath, and presto, it looked right.

At present, I am working on a 'Library Garden' for the UoN Web Campus. Flowers are designed to open up, swivel or attract attention in some way as they reveal 'pollen grains of wisdom'. 

Here is what some of the works in progress look like...and, no, I am actually floating far behind!